April 2011 Issue

Lunchroom Savvy — Schools Find Smart Ways to Encourage Healthful Choices
By Lenora Dannelke
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 4 P. 12

You can lead a child to a healthful lunch, but you can’t make him or her eat it. School foodservice directors, already faced with tight budgets and increased nutrition standards proposed by the USDA, may find their most daunting challenge in the finicky preferences of youthful consumers.

Fortunately, current research in the emerging field of behavioral economics—a melding of the behavioral models of psychology with the decision models of economics—at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, N.Y., demonstrates that subtle environmental changes can encourage kids to make more healthful food choices, and many of the most effective measures may be implemented at little or no cost.

A Smarter Approach
The new Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (known as BEN), which launched through a $1 million grant from the USDA last October, shares information on budget-friendly initiatives through the website SmarterLunchrooms.org.

Suggestions range from adding visual appeal to food displays with attractive lighting, which “can influence on-the-spot decision making,” to the use of creative names for menu items, citing a 28% increase in sales when “vegetable soup” was offered as a “rich vegetable medley soup.” Verbal cues can also influence behavior: Having employees ask students at the cash register if they would like to buy fruit with their lunch prompts fresh produce purchases.

Other successful techniques reported by BEN codirectors Brian Wansink, PhD, author of the best-selling book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, and David Just include requiring high school students to pay cash for desserts and soft drinks—which caused a substantial decline in the sale of sweets—and giving students a choice between two vegetables rather than offering a single vegetable, which saw a greater number of students not only taking but eating the vegetable they had chosen.

These and other Smarter Lunchroom strategies that spur better food decisions may be somewhat outside the traditional realm of some nutrition professionals. “We are simply not trained to think like a behavioral economist,” says Christine Wallace, SNS, director of education and outreach at BEN. “We’re trained in writing menus correctly and making sure the different food groups are covered, making sure that portion sizes are being served correctly. But we’re not trained to think about how to present things in a format that’s really going to encourage the kids to take the healthier things.”

With more than 30 years’ experience as a school foodservice director, Wallace had developed a few methods of her own, such as gently obscuring the contents of an ice cream freezer by covering the clear plastic doors with semi-translucent contact paper to discourage impulse buys and positioning chocolate milk behind the white milk, a minor repositioning that resulted in an uptick in white milk purchases. The relocation of a salad bar in one middle school caused salad sales to triple. “That one we stumbled on by accident,” she says. “It was amazing!” Other studies at Cornell support the positive impact of effective lunchroom traffic flow.

Getting Acquainted With Food
Finding a connection to local foods can help hook kids on fresh produce. “I started to put fruit in a big basket toward the end of the line, and apples really do [sell] in my program. We have a standing order with a local orchard, and the kids know they’re from an orchard right here in town and like that,” says Josie Ennist, MA, RD, SFNS, chair of the New York School Nutrition Association Nutrition Standards Committee and a school lunch manager.

Through an Agriculture in the Classroom program, third graders plant squash at a nearby farm in spring and harvest the vegetables in fall as fourth graders. Ennist then invites the group into the kitchen to help prepare the squash for lunch the next day. “They’ve become familiar with it and will eat it. Being hands-on is a good approach to get kids to try something new, but not every school has time for that kind of program,” she says. “A lot of schools are doing school gardens, and that helps involve the kids.”

Passing out samples of a new menu item while the students are standing in line is a proactive tactic for introducing different tastes. “Kids are used to what they eat at home and tend to shy away from unfamiliar foods. That’s a hard pattern to break,” Ennist says. “Today we had made macaroni and cheese and they weren’t taking it. Who doesn’t like macaroni and cheese? But it didn’t look like Kraft. That probably would have flown right out of here.”

More Options
Smarter, more healthful meals have always been a priority for Debbi Beauvais, RD, SNS, district supervisor of school meals at Gates Chili and the East Rochester School District.

“I’ve changed everything in 10 years—at least that’s what my staff tells me. And with the new legislation [the USDA’s proposed rule to update school lunches and breakfasts], we’ll be changing a few more things,” she says. “My goal is to have something on the menu every day that every child wants to eat.”

Variety makes this goal achievable: Elementary and middle schools have at least six items on the menu, and high school students enjoy a recently renovated food court setting. There’s 60% to 65% participation in this lunch and a la carte program, which includes a “Made Fresh for You” line with sandwiches, salads, and wraps made to order—reminiscent of Subway—and a self-serve area with salad, fruit, and cold vegetables dishes. “Because they can serve themselves, they are taking more, which is kind of a great thing,” Beauvais says. A “Yogurt Lunch” grab-and-go special, with a fruit-and-yogurt parfait paired with a bread item such as a bagel or muffin, is a districtwide hit.

Offering modest rewards, such as giving stickers to younger kids who try a new vegetable or holding a drawing for extra time in the gym or computer lab for older children, can motivate students to make better food selections. “Make a game of it,” says Beauvais, who also holds recipe contests and invites the participants into the kitchen to assist in preparing the dishes.

A computerized point-of-sale system stores data that parents can access and see exactly what their children are eating. “There’s been a lot of positive interaction with parents,” Beauvais says. “When they say, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t want my child buying this,’ a dialogue opens between the manager of the kitchen and the parent. Together we work toward directing the child to make the best choices.”

— Lenora Dannelke is a freelance writer in Allentown, Pa.